Negotiating Multilingualism in Situations of Conflict

Project: Research project (funded)Research

Project Details


This project has three key objectives:
-to understand how different types of conflict (violent vs. non-violent) affect language processing in bilingual speakers;
-to conduct an experimentally based psycholinguistic investigation of voluntary and involuntary language suppression and loss as a psychological defense mechanism in situations of conflict;
-to understand the impact of these processes on issues such as communication, participation, and mental health, in order to articulate recommendations for linguistically appropriate support of immigrants, refugees and other conflict survivors.
Political, social, ethnic, and economic conflicts often manifest themselves as conflicts relating to the languages used by the parties involved. Over the past decades, sociolinguists have made great strides in understanding the origins of language conflicts and articulating strategies for conflict resolution. However, we do not as yet have an understanding of how such language conflicts may affect language processing in bilingual speakers. This project investigates whether the reframing of one's language as 'the language of the enemy' can affect the speaker's ability to access, recall, and communicate in that language and, if so, what the ramifications of voluntary and involuntary language loss are for self-identification and expression of emotions on the one hand and access to support, participation and wellbeing on the other.
We will compare language processing in Ukrainian-Russian and Catalan-Spanish bilinguals before and after escalation of conflict: (a) in Catalonia before and after the 2017 independence referendum and (b) in Ukraine before and after the Russian invasion of 2022. In both settings, a majority of the population is proficient in two typologically related languages that differ in terms of international status and historical prestige (higher for Spanish and Russian) and present-day attitudes (often negative towards Spanish and Russian). The difference between the two settings is in the nature of the political conflict: non-violent in Catalonia and violent in Ukraine.
We will empirically assess the extent to which ease of language processing is modulated by an interaction of the following factors: individual language attitudes; ethnic, linguistic and political self-identification; and language dominance and use. We hypothesize that the war in Ukraine has led to the inhibition of Russian for many speakers, similar to the effects of emotional trauma, and that this will lead to diminished accessibility of Russian lexical items, potentially causing language attrition (loss) in the longer term. For the Catalan speakers, the acts of suppression are less immediately threatening to the personal sphere, and we expect the processing patterns to reflect language dominance and use, rather than individual attitudes and experiences.
The effects on language accessibility, inhibition and processing of a violent conflict, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, will be stronger than the effects of a non-violent one, such as the independence referendum in Catalonia, in that it can trigger in a psychological defense mechanism involving the voluntary inhibition and/or involuntary deterioration of the 'language of the enemy', similar to the effects of other emotional trauma that trigger conscious language rejection and involuntary language loss.
Research questions
RQ1: Can patterns of bilingual lexical access in different languages be disrupted under conditions of political conflict?
RQ2: What is the impact of different types of conflict (legislative/regulatory vs. military)?
RQ3: How do individual attitudes modulate lexical access under these conditions?
RQ4: How do pre-existing patterns of language use and dominance modulate lexical access?
RQ5: What is the consequence of disruption of language processing to identity formation?
RQ6: What is the consequence of such disruption for language attrition/maintenance?

Layman's description

Language conflicts are rarely just about language, and political conflicts often have a linguistic dimension. A relevant and topical example is Russia's invasion of Ukraine, where one of the pretexts given by Putin's government was the purported need to defend the rights of Russian speakers. The outcome was the opposite of the (professed) intent: Traumatized by the war, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians gave up their native Russian and switched to Ukrainian in daily life. Others reported inability to speak Russian, similar to German-Jewish survivors of World War II, who found themselves unable to speak their native German which had become intrinsically linked with the persecution and violence they had suffered at the hand of the Nazis (Schmid, 2002). Similar patterns can be seen across many countries and conflicts, impacting the ability of conflict survivors to communicate and to access services and other forms of societal participation, and often affecting mental wellbeing. These effects are not well-known and often not recognised - for example, in the UK, Ukrainian refugees are regularly provided with Russian interpreters, based on the assumption that all Ukrainians are able to speak and understand Russian. While this is often true, the use of Russian in interactions with traumatized survivors may constitute a barrier to the effectiveness of the support that is offered.
The purpose of the present study is to investigate the effects of political and language conflict on bilingual speakers and to provide an experimentally-based analysis and account of language loss as a psychological defense mechanism. In order to gain insight into how this unfolds in different types of conflict settings, we will compare the differential lexical accessibility and fluency of Ukrainian/Russian and Catalan/Spanish through commonly used linguistic and psycholinguistic tasks measuring lexical access and fluency, and determine how individual attitudes and experiences affect the language balance in bilingual speakers of these languages.
The effects of violent and non-violent conflicts will be examined in two settings 'before' and 'after' conflict escalation: (a) Catalonia before and after the 2017 independence referendum and (b) Ukraine before and after the Russian invasion of 2022. The 'before' data come from bilingual corpora, collected in Ukraine in 2007 and in Catalonia in 2015-2017. The 'after' data will be collected in the present study at two data collection moments, via language questionnaires, interviews, narrative tasks and standardised, widely-used psycholinguistic experiments (verbal fluency task and cued picture naming).
While the linguistic impacts of conflict for the wider society are well understood, there is little research to date investigating how this affects individuals. This study will arrive at a better understanding of how language processing, language use and language maintenance/deterioration are affected by different types of conflict and individual attitudes, and what this means in concrete terms for survivors' lives, processes of identity and identification, participation in society and ability to access support. Based on this understanding we will articulate recommendations for language-sensitive provision of services, in particular social care, counseling and therapy, that can help provide support to conflict survivors experiencing voluntary and/or involuntary language loss. To ensure our recommendations meet the need of both the providers and the recipients of support, we will work closely with refugee-assistance organisations. Stakeholders, partners and representatives of organisations, including the Cities and Universities of Sanctuary charities; Refugee Action; and the Pásalo Project which focuses on the relationship between multilingualism, mental health and social care, are included in the research team alongside internationally renowned experts on issues of multilingualism, identity, trauma and conflict.
Short titleMultilingualism and Conflict
StatusNot started